Column: Mysterious Musings

Reviews of "Next of Kin" and "The Shanghai Moon"
Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.]

“Next of Kin,” by John Boyne (Thomas Dunne Books, $15.95)

Every good book has a secret somewhere in the story – in a mystery, the secret of course is usually the identity of the killer. In John Boyne’s historical mystery, the secret is not the killer’s identity, but the killer’s very personality, his motives, and the extent of his moral depravity. This stand-alone novel is set in 1936 Britain, where one of the central issues of the day is the relationship between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Of course, we know how that turns out, but Boyne offers a possible behind-the-scenes scenario that’s very interesting.

The main portion of the book – the King and Mrs. Simpson are more of an atmospheric sidebar, though they relate to the plot – concerns one Owen Montignac, the scion of the wealthy Montignac family. When the book opens, Owen is giving the eulogy at his uncle’s funeral, the appropriateness of which is hotly debated by the guests at the after-funeral gathering. Such display of emotion is considered by some of the guests (mostly male) to be excessive; by some of the guests (mostly female) to be a welcome change. Owen himself seems oblivious.

By making Owen the central mystery of the novel, Boyne is entering Ruth Rendell territory. Her books often deal not with the “who” behind the crime but the “why,” something she can usually make the reader wonder about until the very last page. Boyne hasn’t reached the celestial heights that Ms. Rendell achieved in her long and noteworthy career, but he gives her a run for her money. Owen, it quickly becomes clear, is the “poor relation” nephew who has been raised along with his cousin Stella by his uncle, with the expectation that the wealth and land of the estate would come to him as the family has always left their estate to the male heir.

It also quickly becomes clear that Owen has a serious gambling debt, one he had hoped to repay on the death of his uncle. Like many of the other pieces of this story, each fits together, and as the story progresses, things begin to line up. 

Involved as plot cogs are the unfortunate Gareth Bentley, a lazy man about town who resists working, as his father does, in the courts; the controversial verdict Gareth’s father has recently handed down in a death penalty case; the art gallery Owen runs; and the relationship between Owen and his cousin, Stella. The outlying cogs are Edward and Wallis and their ultimate fate.

Boyne nicely sketches in the background of 1936 London, and though it’s not as evocative as writing by someone like Kate Ross or Anne Perry, it gets the job done. What he is after is a good story, and he delivers. He’s excellent at deconstructing Owen, who begins as very mysterious and becomes less so as the story moves forward. In a Rendell novel I would never have figured out the ultimate “secret,” though I did here, and it’s one that fits with the way Boyne has set up the plot and characters. With each step Owen takes to reach his ultimate goal, it becomes clear that what he’s willing to do to accomplish it is pretty horrible. This is a fairly haunting and very well told story, well worth a look.

“The Shanghai Moon,” by S.J. Rozan (Minotaur Books, $24.95)

S.J. Rozan’s series featuring, in alternating volumes, P.I.s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, has returned after a seven-year hiatus. Since Rozan’s previous novel in the series, “Winter and Night,” won an Edgar for best novel, her publishers were willing to cut her some slack and wait for her return. It was a good decision – “The Shanghai Moon” is one of the more complex and deeply felt novels in the series, and the topic is so interesting it could definitely host its own book. It’s obviously a topic that has grabbed the author’s passionate attention. Lydia and Bill, thanks to some events in the last book, have been somewhat estranged (though it’s more a case of Bill holding Lydia at arm’s length for reasons of his own), so the case she takes on is at the request of another P.I., Joel Pilarsky.

Joel has been asked by a woman who works as a Holocaust recovery agent to try and track down some missing jewels that have recently been discovered in Shanghai. To give it historical context, Shanghai was one of only two places in the world that allowed Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis free access through its ports. Shanghai was occupied by Japan at the time, but the Japanese didn’t share Hitler’s idea of extinguishing the Jews, and in China, anti-Semitism was unknown. (Anti-European sentiment was another story). The jewels Lydia is trying to find in modern day New York City’s Chinatown long ago belonged to a young refugee, Rosalie Gilder, who fled her home with her brother at the age of 18. She ended up settling in Shanghai and eventually marrying a wealthy Chinese man – her jewels, some of them belonging to her Viennese mother, had been taken with her as security.

Rozan skillfully tells her story through the use of Rosalie’s letters home to her mother, who is waiting, with her Uncle Horst, for passage out of Austria, and also through the diaries of Rosalie’s sister-in-law. The unearthing of these documents involves a lot of detective work, and none of them come from the same source, though all of them are tied to Rosalie’s descendants, who now live in New York. When Joel is murdered and Lydia is fired by the Holocaust recovery agent – supposedly to keep her safe – she stubbornly refuses to give up on Rosalie, and it will be difficult for any reader to give up on her either. Luckily Bill decides to step back into Lydia’s life, and they work the case together.

The customs of modern day Chinatown, contrasted with the customs of an older China and the story of the Japanese occupation (where resident Jews were eventually put into a ghetto, though they were allowed to leave the ghetto to work and go to school) is seamlessly intertwined, though I won’t say I wasn’t sometimes unhappy to be wrenched away from Rosalie’s story. As it happens, the narrator of the book, Lydia Chin, feels the same way and she is just as saddened by Rosalie’s fate as I was as a reader.

When I asked the author about it, telling her how attached I had gotten to Rosalie, she described her strategy: “I thought to myself that even if she hadn’t died young she would have been dead by now.” However, she admitted it didn’t make her feel all that much better either.

The characters and the setting, as well as the historical lesson, make this novel an absolute standout, one you can enjoy without having read any others in the series.